In the wake of the resignation last week of Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, Mary Kay Henry, the new president of the Service Employees International Union, sent a memo last Friday to members of SEIU's International Executive Board announcing that she intends to nominate Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina to Burger's former post, the second highest in the union, at SEIU's board meeting in Los Angeles next month. It is a certainty that the board will ratify Henry's choice.
An SEIU executive vice president since 1996, Medina is the labor movement's foremost champion of immigrant rights. In 1999, he spearheaded the successful campaign to get the AFL-CIO to reverse its longtime opposition to immigrant workers. Over the past 15 years, he has also conceived and coordinated SEIU's efforts to naturalize, register, and turn out the votes of new immigrants in California -- a campaign that helped turn America's largest state solidly Democratic -- and has recently been involved in similar campaigns in Southwestern states. He played a leading role in the unionization and contract victories of immigrant janitors in California, and in SEIU's groundbreaking unionization of janitors in Houston. Medina also was a key negotiator on behalf of labor in the immigration-reform deliberations with the Bush administration, a leader in Hispanic voter mobilization efforts for Barack Obama in 2008, and one of the foremost advocates for comprehensive immigration reform -- and against the Obama administration's stepped-up deportations of immigrants -- during the past two years.
As a union that represents the largely immigrant janitors in the downtowns in many of the nation's largest cities, SEIU has played an outsize role in the immigration battles of the past 15 years. Medina has functioned externally as the union's leading public spokesperson on the issue and internally as its chief strategist and advocate for stepped-up involvement. At the board meeting this June where Henry was elected president following the resignation of longtime President Andy Stern, the union, at Medina's behest, committed itself to fund and wage the kind of registration and get-out-the-vote campaign in Arizona that Medina had headed up in California. The campaign that Medina has put together in Arizona mobilizes SEIU and eight other groups, employing 40 full-time canvassers, to turn out roughly 120,000 Hispanic infrequent voters this November.
In her memo to the board, Henry highlighted Medina's previous work with her in unionizing Southern California hospitals and his ability to wage fast-moving campaigns and to plan long-term campaigns as well.
Medina's nomination was quickly seconded on Friday by Executive Vice President Gerry Hudson, who has supplanted Burger as the head of SEIU's far-flung political operations. A strong advocate of social unionism concerned with issues of race and gender as well as class, Hudson noted that Medina was a kindred spirit. Medina's ascension, he wrote,
"will signal to our members and to the outside world our commitment to social justice and comprehensive immigration reform."
If confirmed, Medina, like Henry, will serve until SEIU's 2012 convention. It's not at all clear that Medina, who was born in 1946, will seek re-election at that time.
"If I'm confirmed, I'm very much looking forward to serving,"
"We'll take it one step at a time. There's a lot of work that needs to be done now."
Born in Zacatecas, Medina followed his parents, who emigrated legally from Mexico under the Bracero program, to the fields of California's San Joaquin Valley when he was 10 years old. Dropping out of school in eighth grade to help support his family, he was working in the fields when, in 1965, he encountered Cesar Chavez, who was just then plunging the newly minted United Farm Workers into their first major strike, against Delano-area grape growers. He became one of the union's most dedicated and promising activists -- so promising that Chavez sent him to Chicago to get Midwestern grocers to stop selling California grapes. Medina had never been in a big city (or a cold climate) before, but within a couple of years, the grape boycott that Medina had organized had compelled some of the Midwest's largest chains to stop buying and selling grapes.
Medina was clearly a rising star within the UFW. Both a charismatic leader and a skilled strategist, he was frequently mentioned as a successor to Chavez. But by the late 1970s, Chavez was more interested in building a movement than a union. Organizing new members and getting good contracts for existing members were no longer Chavez's top priorities, and a deeply disappointed Medina quietly left the union. "He would have been president if he'd stayed," Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the union with Chavez, told UFW historian Miriam Pawel.
After several years, Medina latched on to a foundering SEIU public-employees local in San Diego. He increased its membership six-fold within a couple of years. In 1996, he backed Stern's insurgent campaign for the SEIU presidency and was elevated to the post of executive vice president at the same convention that elected Stern. As the behind-the-scenes strategist for both the union's successful organization of 74,000 home-care workers in Los Angeles and its stunningly successful contract campaign for Los Angeles janitors in 2000 -- a campaign that mobilized close to a majority of L.A.-area elected officials on behalf of the striking janitors -- Medina developed a national reputation as a union leader.
This spring, Medina was one of four (out of six) SEIU executive vice presidents who announced that they'd support Henry as Stern's successor, rather than Burger, whom Stern himself backed. With his now all-but-certain elevation to the post of secretary-treasurer, Medina will be one of the four dominant SEIU leaders, along with Henry, Hudson, and Tom Woodruff, the chief organizing strategist for both the union and the Change to Win Federation that SEIU helped found in 2005.
As secretary-treasurer, Medina will have to spend more time in SEIU's Washington headquarters. For a number of years, he lived in Los Angeles but spent most of his time organizing campaigns across the Southwest. More recently, with his wife Liza DuBrul, a labor lawyer, and their children, he moved to Oxnard, an exurban-rural community outside Los Angeles, where immigrant farmworkers like those with whom he grew up still work the fields. "I'll be in Washington," Medina told me Monday, "but at my age, I clearly won't be doing this for 20 years. We're keeping the house in Oxnard."